I have always had a great affection for Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels and stories. There is something about the setting, in between the two world wars, that I find fascinating. The characters are equally appealing, and the development of Wimsey over the course of the stories is very well done. But the growth of Wimsey from dilettante nobleman dabbling in detection to a fully-rounded character would not have been possible without Sayers’s introduction into the series of Harriet Vane, whom Wimsey clears from a charge of murder and, after a protracted and painful courtship, eventually marries. Miss Vane is a thoughtful and independent young woman who refuses to fit easily into the social role that she is expected to play. It is the deepening relationship between Wimsey and Vane that gives the later stories in the series their strength.
In Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, we are introduced to another independent and strong-willed young woman, who also seems to be immune to the restraints that society would place on her. Greenwood shares a chronological setting with Sayers, those years after the Great War. However, rather than set her stories in the manor houses of England, Greenwood takes her heroine to Australia. In Cocaine Blues, the first in the series, Phryne (rhymes with “briny”) is a well-to-do young woman living in England. She is increasingly bored with the round of parties and balls and the expectations on a young socialite. So, when the daughter of a family friend seems to be mysteriously ill, Phryne agrees to head to the colonies to investigate. Phryne uncovers cocaine smuggling and corruption and she has some fairly steamy encounters (something that is more understated in Dorothy Sayers). She finds life in Melbourne amenable and decides to settle there, taking up detection as her work.
Phryne blends many of the characteristics of Peter Wimsey (rich, handsome, witty, good with people) and Harriet Vane (smart, liberated, independent, and compassionate), and Sayers fans will find much to enjoy in these stories. There is a fascinating cast of secondary characters, including Phryne’s household staff, her Chinese lover, her police friends, and her cab-driving aides-de-camp, Bert and Cec. The mysteries are intriguing, and Greenwood writes equally well about the lives of the rich and the poor in 1920s Melbourne. The series is best read in order.
Check the WRL catalog for Cocaine Blues